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View from HR: No single feature makes a workplace successful

I see so many blogs and one-trick authors claiming a must-have formula for a great work environment. There is no single feature that every successful workplace requires and no single attribute to always avoid.

Examples prove my point. There was a rural North Carolina manufacturer with difficult working conditions. It was hot inside, with a garden sprinkler to cool the metal roof. Dark. Old. Smelly. Low pay. Low-end, low-margin products on their way to China any day. Absentee ownership favored the New York office in days off and other benefits. A union once tried to organize the plant.

Rather than support the union, workers banded together and told the union to go away. “We like the people here, and we trust our supervisors,” they said. This company did such a good job promoting the right managers who supported employees in every way they could – all those problems weighed less than the good things.


At another company, high pay and big stock incentives are the trade-off for ridiculous hours, unlawful denial of overtime pay, lack of soft skills and a single fixation on revenue. Some people are attracted to an environment that ignores engagement and relationships for extreme monetary gain.

At still a third operation, politically incorrect managers with mouths and mentalities from the 1950s have a loyal workforce because of the many ways ownership shows loyalty to the staff. Personal support in family tragedies, full employment in slow times, merit-based decision-making with transparency, credit where credit is due. In most ways, managers use the Golden Rule every day.

But then comes the more typical setting where poor, average and good managers all work, and efforts are made to comply with laws. Pay meets the market. The air conditioning works. Leadership is OK, but the vision is cloudy. Birthdays are celebrated. There is free coffee in the break room.

‘Original Sphere’ theory

Yes, this last example is where the legal problems usually arise and where people tend to be most dissatisfied. Turnover is too high, and expectations/rewards are unclear. Everything gets some attention, but the company is not really good at anything regarding people. Frustrations, misunderstandings and rushed decisions lead to claims and inefficiencies.

This all brings me to the “Original Sphere” workplace theory. This plastic toy expands to beach ball size or compresses down to 8 inches. Workplaces with bad outcomes – however those outcomes are measured by employees and owners – are like a compressed sphere. The fully expanded sphere represents a successful workplace for staff and owners.

The right combination of attributes expands the sphere, while negative attributes compress the object. Having managers with excellent soft skills is usually a powerful sphere-filler, but maybe not in a coin-operated setting that fits these employees’ income objectives. In another setting, great soft skills are the only reason the workplace functions well. A balance is usually good (and serious problems should be avoided), but a lack of workplace uniqueness brings its own recruitment challenges.

Be purposeful about the right combination of attributes for your workplace. It can succeed because it is unique.

Bruce Clarke, J.D., is CEO of CAI, helping more than 1,000 North Carolina employers maximize employee engagement and minimize employer liability. For more information, visit